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How Hamas Was Able to Breach Israel’s Defenses

IDF tank
An IDF tank picture in 2023. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The assault by Hamas on Saturday against Israel was the worst lapse in the latter’s defenses since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Commenting on the assault, one Israeli military officer said, “This is our 9/11… they got us.”

Despite enjoying conventional military superiority across every major domain, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were caught off guard, enabling Hamas militants to kill hundreds of Israelis and take dozens of hostages.

As the fighting continues, it remains to be seen what the broader strategic implications of the conflict will entail for the region. In the meantime, military analysts can begin to examine ongoing events for insights at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.

Israeli intelligence failures leading up to the attack

The surprising nature of Hamas’ attack on Saturday has already led many to question whether the Israeli intelligence community failed to provide a realistic picture of the militant group’s intentions.

“There’s no doubt that the scale and scope of this Hamas attack indicate just a colossal intelligence failure on behalf of the IDF and in Shin Bet, the internal security agency,” commented Dr. Raphael Marcus, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies.

Israel employs extensive traditional and digital surveillance, including facial recognition and spyware, to monitor Gaza and potential Hamas connections. Despite its global hacking prowess, Hamas’ successful complex attack highlights the inherent limitations of even robust surveillance systems.

The difficulty for Israel in terms of intelligence is not a lack of information. Israeli intelligence possesses the means to collect a massive wealth of intelligence. The problem is that in an environment with such a high density of threats, sorting the wheat from the chaff in terms of the most credible risks is remarkably difficult.

As former US National Security Agency hacker and current faculty member at the Institute for Applied Network Security Jake Williams puts it, “Intelligence in an environment like Israel isn’t finding a needle in a haystack—it’s finding the needle that will hurt you in a pile of needles.”

Hamas adeptly used information warfare

It appears that Israel believed Hamas – which is the de facto authority in the Gaza Strip – was solely concerned with providing employment for its workers and that its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was not planning operations against Israel.

However, in the months leading up to the attack, Hamas militants were busy training and even constructed a mock Israeli settlement in Gaza where they drilled and practiced ahead for the assault.

“Hamas used an unprecedented intelligence tactic to mislead Israel over the last months, by giving a public impression that it was not willing to go into a fight or confrontation with Israel while preparing for this massive operation,” an intelligence source close to Hamas told the media.

Israeli intelligence took these claims by Hamas at face value and was working on false assumptions that an attack was not imminent. The date of the initial assault during the Jewish Sabbath and a religious holiday further enabled the attackers to bypass Israeli defenses.

Hamas’ tactical approach against Israel

It is worth noting that the IDF enjoys a significant conventional military advantage over Hamas, so the latter must adopt asymmetric tactics against Israel. The IDF has advanced airpower capabilities and a significant number of armored ground vehicles. Hamas does not.

One of Israel’s major strengths is the Iron Dome mobile all-weather air defense system which has proven extremely capable at intercepting rockets fired by Hamas during previous conflicts. According to Arman Mahmoudian, a researcher at South Florida’s Global and National Security Institute, Hamas recognized that they could not surpass the Iron Dome’s technology but aimed to overwhelm its reloading speed by launching a high volume of projectiles. Their success remains somewhat uncertain.

Inspired by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Hamas also utilized nearly undetectable quadcopter drones to target Israeli troops and observation posts. The proliferation of drones in recent years has enabled non-state actors to obtain airpower capabilities that were previously only available to states. Although Hamas absolutely cannot establish air superiority over Israel, IDF troops on the ground do now have to be mindful of threats in the sky.

Why is Hamas taking hostages from Israel?

Hamas has taken dozens of hostages from Israel. Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, the IDF’s international spokesperson, told CNN on Sunday that “civilians, children, and grandmothers” were among those taken hostage by Hamas.

Analysts now believe that the hostages are being held in bunkers, tunnels, and densely populated civilian areas in Gaza. This would complicate efforts by the IDF to launch airstrikes against Hamas, as they would risk killing their own citizens as collateral damage.

In the past, Hamas has kept weapons and munitions stored in densely populated civilian areas to dissuade the IDF from conducting airstrikes. The presence of captured Israeli citizens would further complicate such operations.

Over a longer-term basis, it is likely that Hamas will use Israeli hostages to score political concessions during negotiations. This may include an exchange of prisoners between Israel and Gaza.

Abu Marzouk, chief deputy of Hamas’ political bureau, has claimed that the number of Israeli hostages “hasn’t been counted yet but they are over a hundred,” adding that “high-ranking” Israeli military officers are among that number.

Israel’s response

The major question that remains is how Israel will respond to the developing situation in both the short and long term. Miscalculation at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels could severely jeopardize the security situation in the region even further.

Thus far, Israel has conducted extensive airstrikes within the blockaded Gaza Strip, resulting in the destruction of numerous buildings. Concurrently, Hamas has persisted in launching rockets into Israel.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the “first phase” of his country’s response had been completed and claimed that most Hamas militants had been driven away from Israeli territory.

Mr. Netanyahu has sworn to continue the counteroffensive “without reservation and without respite.” Speculation is now rife as to whether this will constitute a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza.

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